For today’s Fiction Friday Post, I’ve got a wonderful new voice in young adult fiction, Kacey Vanderkarr. Kacey is writing about description. Her debut novel, Antithesis is coming out in a few short weeks.
by Kacey Vanderkarr
Every writer faces the conundrum regarding description. How much is enough? How much is too much? Is my vocabulary too large for my audience? When I took this guest post on Lisa’s blog, I had a hard time deciding what to write about, but what better to talk about than the writing process?
Description takes your story from clinical to poetic, from plain to extraordinary.
I’m going to take everyone back to high school (insert groaning here), to English and Lit classes, and explore some writing tools that will make your work shine.
How many of you read your work aloud? You don’t have to read it to someone, just to yourself. You can even record it, let it stew for a few days, and then listen. You will be amazed at how different it sounds in comparison to what you hear in your head. You’ll catch repetition, awkward dialogue, tags that don’t fit, and anything that prevents the story from running smoothly. If you stumble over a phrase or word, chances are the reader will stumble as well.
Writing and reading are not just about words strung together, for the words have weight and texture as you say them, and certain connotations that can easily (and secretly!) add mood to your story.
Consider the sounds of the following words (by saying them aloud—this is an interactive post!):
Eviscerated. I love this word. It’s slick in your mouth, much like a knife over flesh, which is exactly what you would want your reader to imagine.
Ensconced. The soft “s” followed by the hard “c” brings about roundness and a feeling of being enclosed. It makes me think of darkness and candlelight.
Viscous. You can ask my writing group, it’s one of my favorite words. The word itself slows you in the middle of saying it. Vis-cous. Like syrup or oil.
When you use a word that SOUNDS like what you’re trying to impart, the reader will be taken deeper into your story, even if they don’t realize it. I’d love to see some comments about your favorite words and how the weight and texture of them affect stories. I could go on for pages and pages with beautiful words.
There are other tools, things that you probably learned in high school or college, which you use and don’t even think about. That’s fine—it’s always okay to write well without trying, but being aware of the tools will not only improve your writing, it will help you help others. (And there’s no world more helpful than the writing world.)
Surely you remember the famous “Susie sells seashells by the sea shore.” Repetition of the first sound can be interesting, especially if it’s particular to a character. Remember that game you played in school where you would go around the room and say your name and something you like? “Hi my name is Kacey and I like ketchup.” Then you would have to remember each person and what they liked and recite them back. The reason this works is because the repetition of the sound. Our brains remember association, which is why if the person could think of either ketchup or Kacey, they could remember the other word. You can use the same trick in your writing, especially when describing characters or adding sneaky details. “Lisa came from St. Louis and never left the house without hot pink lipstick.” Here’s what the reader remembers, Lisa, Louis, lipstick. You have given them her name, a way to remember her name (the L’s), her location, and the fact that she wears lipstick. This detail could be sneaky if Lisa’s lipstick becomes important later in the story, say on the collar of someone else’s man. See? Sneaky and simple.
This tool is used to give anything that isn’t human human characteristics. My favorite way to use this is by personifying buildings and nature. By giving them life, you create another character in the story, which can shape the mood, add tension, and give the reader an overall feeling that isn’t spelled out (think gut reaction).
The hallway echoed vast and empty, catching our voices and tumbling them back like secrets shared between friends. Closed doors hovered on either side, impatient mouths waiting to swallow us whole.
The first sentence gives mystery by the use of “secrets”; the second sentence makes the building ominous because anything that wants to swallow you cannot be safe. Using personification forces you to examine the world in a different way and can be used on almost anything. Take a notebook and go outside. Doesn’t matter if you’re in a park or city or your own back yard. Look around. Practice personifying what you see. You can use those lines later in your writing. (You do have a notebook, right? If not, get one. You never know when you’ll have the urge to write!)
Metaphors and Similes
I’m grouping these two together because they are similar, however, a metaphor is almost ALWAYS stronger than a simile, but in some instances, a simile is a better choice. Confused? Let me explain.
A metaphor says that “something” is actually “something else.” I wrote a poem a while back that used “Lies are the heart of life.” Clearly, lies cannot be a beating heart, but using a metaphor makes a strong statement. People survive on lies. Lies make the world go around. You get the picture. I could’ve made the same statement into a simile, which compares two things by using “like” or “as”. “Lies are like the heart of life.” It still correlates lies and the heart of life, but the connection is not as strong.
Earlier I used the sentence, “The hallways echoed vast and empty, catching our voices and tumbling them back like secrets shared between friends.” This compares the sounds of the voices to secrets shared between friends using the word “like”. In this instance, a simile is stronger.
Others may disagree with me, but I try to use similes sparingly because they are obvious in writing. Metaphors are subtler, and remember that word I used earlier? Sneaky!
Here are some more examples.
His hands were nervous birds, fluttering around my face and searching for a landing. (metaphor)
The sun winked on the horizon like a show girl saying her final goodbye. (simile)
Here’s something I recently learned. Have you ever heard of the term “dead metaphor”? It explains something where you don’t actually visualize what it’s saying. There’s another word for this: cliché. I found two examples of this (wikipedia) while working on this post: “to grasp the concept” and “to gather what you’ve understood”. They’re phrases we use but don’t recognize as metaphors, which lends them to be cliché. Be careful in using any phrases that are considered cliché—they became that way for a reason, and it wasn’t because they were original. Can you think of any other dead metaphors?
Which leads me to clichés. AVOID THEM! Here are some common ones: Like a ton of bricks, like a bat out of hell, pedal to the metal, etc. They are a cop-out to well-written description.
So, description. How much is too much? How many of you have read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms? He goes on for about four pages about the dust on the road. THAT is too much description (in my opinion, I know there are those who enjoy literary fiction who will disagree with me). I like to use the rule of three and I always try to make scent one of the descriptors. Smell is strongly rooted to memory and is the strongest description you can use. If you enter a new room (building, place, etc) describe three things about it. Try using the writing tools I described earlier.
The derelict bowling alley stank of stagnant liquor and unwashed bodies. (description 1 using scent) Cody skirted a gang of black-clad bikers who flexed their muscles and yelled obscenities like prisoners cat-calling to a newly imprisoned inmate. (description 2 using simile) Shannon was behind the bar, skirt clad hips propped on the counter, the tight leather an invitation that rose bile in Cody’s throat. (description 3 using metaphor)
In three sentences I have set up the story. The bowling alley is not in a “good part of town” and is frequented by volatile bikers. Cody is there to see Shannon, and is clearly not happy about how she dresses. I have protagonist (Cody), antagonists (the bikers) and conflict (Shannon). I’ve set the mood (unwashed bodies, cat-calls, bile).
Now we would move to the bar and use the rule of three to describe Shannon.
Shannon‘s hot pink shirt was a bright spot amongst a sea of black. (description 1) She picked Cody out of the crowd and swung her mile-long legs up onto the counter, wedging herself between two burly men to reach him. (description 2) “Hi baby,” she said, washing his face with the scent of her cotton candy gum. (description 3)
And I would go on like this, mixing action with description to keep the story moving along. Pages and pages of description will turn a reader off and likely make them “put your book down”. Make your descriptions work for you, include them in the action so that it flows instead of stalls the writing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on description.
Thank you so much for hosting me, Lisa!
Kacey Vanderkarr is a young adult author. She dabbles in fantasy, romance, and sci-fi, complete with faeries, alternate realities, and the occasional plasma gun. She’s known to be annoyingly optimistic and listen to music at the highest decibel. Her debut novel, Antithesis, will be available from Inkspell Publishing, July 21, 2013. Kacey is the president of the Flint Area Writers and the Social Media Director for Sucker Literary. When she’s not writing, she coaches winterguard and works as a sonographer. Kacey lives in Michigan, with her husband, son, crazy cats, and two bearded dragons. She would be ecstatic if you added Antithesis on Goodreads and followed her blog www.kaceyvanderkarr.com.